Mr. Dayton to Mr. Seward.
Sir: Since my despatch of the 18th instant I have received yours, (No. 97,) and cannot but feel gratified that our views expressed in those despatches, crossing each other in their way, should have so nearly conformed. When I expressed the wish that permission to trade with certain ports of the south might be granted if it could be done without too great hazard to paramount interests, I had not ventured to hope that such wish would so soon find in effect a corresponding response from yourself. Your despatch came in good time. It is not to be denied that recently things here have had an unfavorable look for our interests. The effect of the blockade, the permanent destruction of the harbor at Charleston, the hopelessness of our cause, all taken for granted, and all impressed upon the public mind here by the English press, have had a damaging influence. Whether anything will be developed by the action of this government I know not; but it is not to be doubted that it has had under serious consideration the question of the blockade and of recognition. Your despatch afforded me an excuse for asking of Mr. Thouvenel a special interview. It was granted for Friday last, when I had with him a long conference, and, I think, made an impression on his mind in reference, at all events, to certain points.
I suggested to him, according to your directions, the propriety of calling the attention of the British government to the suggestion in your note to Mr. Mercier in reference to the better settlement of certain principles of maritime law. I assured him that the government of the United States would at all times be ready and willing to assent to any general arrangement which would have for its effect the permanent settlement of the rights of neutrals on a liberal basis. That we did not want the present occasion to pass without fixing upon Great Britain especially, in a definite form, certain principles for which France and the United States had always contended, but to which Great Britain had never yielded her assent. I reminded him that while we were not, at the present moment, in the most favorable position to move in such a matter, France could, under all the circumstances, with great propriety and power, take the initiative. That it seemed to me very desirable she should do so, and that something should be done before the question of the Trent should become mere matter of history; to take its place as a single precedent among others, and to be dealt with, canvassed, or avoided by the statesmen of that country as interest or inclination might prompt. Mr. Thouvenel thought that Great Britain could not now get back of this precedent, but said that France could do nothing alone; she must consult with other powers. He suggested a commission of jurisconsults, who should prepare and present for discussion certain questions, which should be submitted to a congress of ministers or ambassadors, something, I suppose, after the manner of the congress of Paris of 1856. This I inferred to be a suggestion only. It indicated, however, a willingness to act in the matter, if any available means could be found for doing so. In calling his attention, among other matters, to those questions affecting the interests of neutrals, I told him that, without having any distinct authority from my government for saying so, I had no doubt it would be happy to adopt the most liberal policy in reference to blockades, either to abolish them by the general assent of ‘all nations, or modify them in such way as to make them, in the least possible degree, detrimental to the great interests of commerce. He at once asked if I intended [Page 311] to include in my remark the blockade that we had established of the ports of the south. This afforded me an opportunity, and I replied, in the language of your despatch, by telling him that this blockade was “a thing daily more and more falling within our power to modify, if not remove altogether.” I reminded him that it was manifestly the interest of the United States having a great commercial marine (though not a large naval power) to remove all obstacles in the way of the most free commercial intercourse, and I ventured to assure him that our government was too wise and far-seeing to permit any transient matter to interfere with the attainment of a great end, or the adoption of a most liberal and enlightened commercial policy. This naturally brought up the question of the “stone fleet” and the supposed attempt at the permanent destruction of the port of Charleston. He said he wanted to hear what explanation I could give of that proceeding. He added that it had made a most unfavorable impression against us all over Europe I told him that, without having any authority from my government, one of the principal objects of my visit was to correct erroneous impressions as to this matter. I reminded him then of the fact that the only information we had on this subject was through the newspapers; that the government had never, so far as I know, declared its intention permanently to destroy that port; that the temporary obstruction of one of its channels was, I believed, all that was sought. I told him that had not stones been placed in the old hulks sunk there, to keep them down, we might as well throw chips into the sea; the very next gale would have swept them from their position; that the bank on which they were placed was, I thought, some five or six miles from Charleston, in the ocean, not in the mouth or bed of the river, and that the depth there, at high water, was about eighteen feet, and at low water about eleven feet only; that much of the time, therefore, these old hulks were, to a great extent, above water, and that there would be no difficulty, as I supposed, in removing them at a future day, if it were desirable to do so. I showed him, likewise, an extract from the Charleston Mercury, which scouted at the idea of permanently closing the harbor in that way, and added that it had known a new ship or ships of a thousand tons burden, loaded with railroad iron, sunk in the middle of the channel and in a few weeks entirely gone or swept from their position. I further told him that if newspaper reports were to be relied upon, I believed the south had itself sunk vessels, not only in the interior of the harbor, but in the Savannah river, for the express purpose of keeping our ships out, and we had exercised only the same right as against them. After further conversation as to this matter, he said these explanations were most important, and asked if Mr. Adams had made them to Lord John Russell. I told him I knew nothing about that, though it might be he had not; that my suggestions were merely personal, volunteered; that you had given me no authority to make such explanations; that you never noticed officially, nor acted upon what appeared in the newspapers, and probably never contemplated that the French or British government would act upon information obtained from that source. He said that it seemed to him very important that the conduct of our government should be properly understood in this matter, and asked why it had not been explained through the French press. I told him that personally I was forbidden by my instructions from writing anything for the press, which he said was all right, but that it should have been done by others. I then told him that it would yet be done.
I took with me to the foreign office a skeleton map of the United States, and explained to Mr. Thouvenel, as well as I could, the position of our troops, and what I supposed to be the purpose or plan of the campaign. I told him I thought we were now nearly or quite ready to move, and wanted a little [Page 312] time; that as yet the effort to suppress the insurrection had not been made; that having gotten on our armor, foreign governments must give us a chance at least to see what would come of it. In the course of the conversation upon the general question of settling the maritime law, I spoke of the propriety of France’s bringing forward anew, as an independent proposition, the Marcy amendment in reference to the security of private property afloat, not contraband; the settlement more definitely as to what should be embraced under the term “contraband;” the modification of the law of blockades, or their removal altogether. I thought it well to say to him, however, that we would probably have in the future no further interest in these questions than other naval powers because, warned by what had now befallen us, I could not doubt that it would be the policy of our government to enlarge and strengthen its naval force; that we would probably be compelled, in the future, to assume, measurably, at least, a proper position among the naval powers of the world. This statement I knew could not but be agreeable to France; whether it would be equally so to England might be a question.
Our conversation lasted for nearly an hour and a half, though the above matters embrace, perhaps, the substance or more important parts of it. Mr. Thouvenel professed to be much interested in some of my explanations, and I think was really glad to hear what I said upon the subject of the blockade. It helped to relieve his mind from an impression that we were conducting the war in a ruthless, revengeful spirit. I only hope that I have not myself gone further in parts of the above conversation than the facts or purposes of the government will justify. But if so, I have committed nobody but myself, and it is not to be doubted that things had arrived at such a pass here that something must be done. An impression for some days before the above conference was almost universal among a certain class, both in England and here, that the Emperor would indicate a policy hostile to us in his speech of to-day, opening the legislative chamber, and many of our best friends feared it would be so. Indeed, I knew positively that he had recently been making particular inquiries for information on certain points referred to in the above conversation. This conversation was on Friday, and I knew there was to be a cabinet council, the Emperor presiding, on Saturday, at which, I thought, would be settled the character of the address he would deliver, and I felt it important, under the circumstances, to go as far as I rightly could upon the points hereinbefore stated. * * * * *
The opening of the Chamber to-day was a truly imposing scene. The speech of the Emperor is herewith enclosed. You will observe that the brief reference to our country is all that we could ask or expect. The friends of secession feel it as a bitter disappointment.
I shall be most happy to confer with Mr. Adams in respect to the matters referred to in your despatch. It will not, however, be convenient for me, I fear, to go again over to England for the purpose. Perhaps Mr. Adams might be induced to come over to Paris. If not, we may, by corespondence, * * * * * come to some general understanding upon the line of conduct it will be safest for the government at Washington to adopt, in the event of new complications here. If you shall succeed in taking possession of and holding the principal seaports, such as Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans, or even New Orleans and one other of those ports, I should consider the danger of recognition or a violation of the blockade as for the present passed. But if weeks more shall pass away, and spring shall open and nothing yet have been done, the impression will, I fear, have become fixed in the European mind that our efforts to suppress the insurrection are hopeless, and that the sooner the struggle is ended the better for ourselves and the world. A large class (combining, to a considerable [Page 313] extent, the aristocracy of all European countries) are bent upon seeing in the existing condition of things the destruction of our government and the permanent failure of our institutions. This class we can scarcely hope to conciliate. They have been against us from the beginning and will be to the end, whatever may be the result of our military operations. But there is another class, and a large one, who, without being at all the partisans of republicanism, are disposed to give us and our institutions a fair trial. They see what we have already accomplished for humanity, and feel that the great interests of the world will be best promoted by the ultimate success of our Union. It is among this class of men, thoughtful, intelligent, and progressive, that we have our warmest friends. But although friends, they are not partisans. They will support us only so long as there is evidence that the country and its institutions can support themselves.
I have the honor to be, with much respect, your obedient servant,
His Excellency William H. Seward, Secretary of State, &c.